Billy Wilder is my absolute favourite director. He managed to put his stamp on every one of his films, despite working in a variety of genres, from film noir, to war films and romantic comedies. Eureka Entertainment seem to be intent on releasing his lesser known films on Blu-ray. Last year was One Two Three, and this time it’s the turn of his early classic, A Foreign Affair.
Set just after World War Two, A Foreign Affair follows the US occupation of Berlin, and the arrival of a congressional committee – including congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) – to measure the soldiers’ morale, only to find the soldiers have fully embraced the black market and illicit pleasures to be found in the city. After discovering that German nightclub singer Erika Von Schlutow (Marlene Dietrich) is involved with an American officer, Frost enlists fellow Iowan Captain Pringle (John Lund) to help find the soldier’s identity, little knowing that Pringle is the man she’s looking for!
Less screwball than Wilder’s out and out comedies, this nonetheless has a playful tone which is sometimes at odds with the subject matter. Made only three years after the end of World War Two, the irreverence shown by Wilder to the Nazis is staggering, but he somehow makes it subversive and charming. The child who has been chalking swastikas all over the city gets a stern talking to, but the seriousness is undercut by the fact he’s drawn one on his father’s back as well. As silly as the comedy is, it’s difficult to imagine jokes like this being made in films today.
The setting is incredible, and the documentary style footage of the city alone makes the film worth a watch. The multiple shots of bombed out Berlin, with ruined, hollowed out buildings in the city are really striking, and make for sobering viewing.
Marlene Dietrich is as striking and sultry as ever, and gets to let rip in a couple of songs written specifically for the film. For me though, Jean Arthur steals the film. Arthur is one of the great unsung comediennes of Hollywood’s Golden Age and she really shines here. She essentially lays the groundwork for characters like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation here – a bookish, straitlaced congresswoman who only really seems to come to life when talking about her home state of Iowa. She’s completely endearing, and the scene where she tipsily sings the campaign anthem for her home state of Iowa, shyly at first but with increasingly confidence, until she is absolutely belting it out, is the stand out scene of the film. It’s obviously funny, but also incredibly human and poignant.
It’s quite something that a film made in 1948 has such strong roles for women, while the male roles are pretty bland. Wilder himself called John Lund “the guy you got after you wrote the part for Cary Grant and Grant wasn’t available” which is a bit harsh! Lund isn’t a bad actor; he shines in his comic scenes and has good chemistry with both Dietrich and Arthur. However he can’t help but fade into the background when in scenes with two of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading ladies.
A Foreign Affair might not be as snappy or fast paced as Wilder’s later comedies such as Some Like It Hot or The Apartment, and it doesn’t have the cynicism that makes films like Double Indemnity and Ace In The Hole so enduring. However, the humanity and warmth of Arthur’s performance, coupled with the always witty writing and the mere presence of Dietrich makes this a must-see.
Commentary by film historian Joseph McBride; From Berlin to Hollywood: Wilder and Dietrich’s Foreign Affair – video essay by Kat Ellinger; Two radio adaptations; Archival interview with Billy Wilder; Theatrical trailer; collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a new essay by critic Richard Combs, and archival material.